US citizens sue border patrol agent who detained them for speaking Spanish – Reason.com
“So it is illegal to speak Spanish in Montana?” Ana Suda asked border patrol officer Paul O’Neal after detaining her with her friend Mimi Hernandez at a convenience store in Le Havre, a small town near the border with Canada, on a Wednesday night last May. “Well, ma’am,” O’Neal replied, “it’s not illegal. It’s just very unknown here.” And that, in his view, constituted a reasonable suspicion that the two women, both American citizens and Le Havre, were in the country illegally, warranting 40 minutes of detention while he investigated their immigration status.
O’Neal was wrong about it, according to one trial filed yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union. “There was no legitimate reason for Agent O’Neal and the other CBPs [Customs and Border Protection] agents to detain Ms. Suda and Ms. Hernandez, “the complaint said. “Speaking Spanish does not establish a reasonable suspicion justifying arrest and detention, let alone probable cause for arrest.” ACLU seeks compensatory and punitive damages as well as an injunction prohibiting CBP from “arresting and / or detaining individuals on the basis of race, accent and / or Spanish language except when the entry is based on a specific and reliable suspect. description corresponding to these characteristics. “
Suda and Hernandez, certified nursing assistants who work at the northern Montana care center, weren’t suspect until O’Neal, assigned to CBP’s office in Havre, heard them speaking Spanish at the Town Pump convenience store, where they had stopped to go look. eggs and milk after exercising together at a local gym. When Hernandez greeted him in English, O’Neal, who was in his uniform and carried a gun, commented on his accent and asked him and Suda where they were born. “Are you serious?” Suda said, according to her Account. “Very serious,” O’Neal replied. So they answered him, El Paso, Texas, said Suda. El Centro, Calif., Hernandez said. O’Neal asked for ID and the women surrendered their Montana driver’s licenses.
Although Montana requires Driving license applicants to provide “proof of authorized attendance,” such as a birth certificate or passport, O’Neal was not satisfied. He kept Suda and Hernandez detained in the store parking lot for another half an hour or so while he checked out outstanding warrants, called a supervisor, and waited for her to arrive.
In one cell phone video as Suda and Hernandez shot outside the store, one of them asks O’Neal: “Can you tell us in the video, please, why are you asking for our IDs? ? ” His answer does not leave him much legal leeway: “Ma’am, the reason I asked you for your ID is that I came here and saw that you speak Spanish, which is very important. unknown here…. has to do with the fact that you speak Spanish in the store in a state where it is predominantly English speaking. “
According to the complaint, Suda asked O’Neal’s supervisor if she and Hernandez would have been arrested if they spoke French. “No, we don’t do that,” the supervisor replied. The ACLU argues that O’Neal used women’s language and accents as indicators of race, violating the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection guarantee as well as the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable foreclosures.
In 2006, the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which includes Montana, ruled that border patrol officers in Le Havre violated the Fourth Amendment when they arrested six Latino men during a high school football game because of their “appearance as a work team”, their proximity to the border and their inability to speak English. While these factors are relevant to establishing a reasonable suspicion, the appeals court said they were not sufficient to meet this threshold. It follows quite clearly that speaking Spanish and English, as Suda and Hernandez do, cannot establish reasonable suspicion.
Suda says the incident and the publicity surrounding it made life in Le Havre uncomfortable. “After the video of the stop was picked up by the news,” she written on the ACLU blog, “Mimi and my families have been repeatedly harassed for speaking out. We received hate messages from people across the country, but the worst was what happened in our own city, a place I considered home. In her high school, a teacher asked Mimi’s son if he had brought his ID card to class. My 8 year old daughter is afraid to speak Spanish and has started answering me in English when I ask him questions …. restaurants and bars, saying I’m an “illegal”. “
Suda admits that she could have avoided this reaction if she had been silent about the meeting with O’Neal. “Maybe life would be back to normal,” she says, “but then I think about my children. I want them to not only be proud of being bilingual, but also to know that they live in a country where people cannot simply be stopped and questioned based on their looks and sound. “